For many Americans the long expansion of the economy during the 1990s reinforced the belief that technological advances will naturally lead to prosperity. So strong is this belief that the stock market crash, financial scandals, and a few years of recovery without many new jobs have not undermined it. Supporting this optimistic view of the economic future are gains in productivity, or the output of the economy per hour of work. In the second half of the 1990s, productivity grew rapidly. Not only did stock prices, profits, and the fortunes of the rich rise, but so did the wages and salaries of most of the rest of us, even the working poor.
According to most accounts, the emergence of the new economy—the proliferation of personal computers, of the Internet, of computerized business activity generally—led to a sustained rise in productivity, and rising productivity, as it is supposed to do, resulted in a higher standard of living. Meantime, Europe and Japan could not keep pace, as unemployment rates rose and remained high, and national incomes rose slowly. In short, to many, the US economy was apparently back on its rapid historic track and, in light of relative foreign stagnation, the case for American exceptionalism had found new justification.
That technological innovation will continue to propel the economy is widely assumed by many commentators. It is hardly surprising that Harold Evans, former publisher of Random House, editor of the London Times, and author of The American Century, has published a book of celebration of the nation’s great technological and business innovators, They Made America. “Practical innovation more than anything else is the reason America achieved preeminence while other well-endowed landmasses lagged,” Evans writes. There is, of course, much more to America’s remarkable economic success than that, not least the country’s available land, huge natural resources, and the size of its domestic market. But Evans is more interested in the stories he has to tell than in the broader conclusions they may or may not suggest. His heavily illustrated book, written with Gail Buckland and David Lefer, is a detailed and perceptive account of the efforts of seventy people whose contributions were critical in giving shape to American life. Evans devotes chapters to such familiar inventors and entrepreneurs as Eli Whitney, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Walt Disney, Estée Lauder, and Ted Turner, among dozens of others. But we also learn of many people few will recognize, among them Henry Miller Shreve, who, in the 1830s, cleared the nation’s rivers of fallen trees and other debris for travel; Theodore Dehone Judah, who, as its chief engineer, made possible the transcontinental railroad; Martha Matilda Harper, who franchised beauty salons in the early twentieth century; Ruth Handler, co-founder with her husband of the Mattel toy company and creator of the Barbie doll; and Gary Kildall, who wrote the first and best of the computer operating systems.
Evans is careful to show that none of these men and women did it …